Horses Helping Others
By April Horowitz
(The Heart of a Horse Story, part 13)
My drive-along with Kevin had led to many fruitful contacts, including introductions to many of the local rescues, for whom I was able to provide contributions of medical supplies and hay. One of the people whom Kevin introduced me to and I was able to help was a woman in her sixties named Jan Threinin who had a compelling story.
Just before she turned forty Jan discovered that she was suffering from MS. At one point it made her so weak that she could hardly walk. She had ridden horses recreationally and her trainer suggested she try horse therapy, which is a well-practiced art in the horse community. Horses that have been rescued are trained to perform as therapeutic horses for children and disabled adults. Once Jan got back on a horse she began to feel her legs strengthen and soon found she was able to walk again. She was so impressed by what she had experienced that she got herself a certificate, set up her own foundation, called Above and Beyond, and began working with rescue horses to help disabled children and adults. One of her most remarkable results was with a mentally disabled child who remained in a fetal position until he was put on a horse. And then he came alive. For me it was another example of the unexpected gifts that horses have to offer if they are included in our lives.
One day Kevin called me and said “I’m going to Sunland to see my client Ann Marriner, who runs the Willie Ross Foundation, which has a riding program for deaf and autistic adults. Would you like to go?” I did, and Willie Ross became another horse therapy program that Heart of a Horse supported.
The Foundation was started by Mrs Willie Ross whose son was born autistic and deaf, and whose name was Willie Jr. She put him in the hands of experts who told her it would be best if she institutionalized him, which she did. But when she came to visit him, she found him tied to a bed with attendants beating his feet “to drive out the devils.” She removed Willie from the facility and dedicated herself to building programs, which would treat children like him kindness. Willie Ross also takes care of autistic adults. Every adult there wants to be in the riding program, which Ann Marriner told me is their chief motivator.
While I was at their facility, I met Willie, the inspiration for the institution and its programs. He was a short man in his fifties. I knew he couldn’t hear or understand me but I said, “It’s an honor to meet you Willie.” I asked Ann, how to sign the word “horse,” and then I did it for Willie, and he laughed and clapped his hands and got very animated. He signed “horse” back to me. I could see right then and there how much the program meant to him.
One of the Willie Ross patients I met was a black man named Robert who was thirty-seven years old. Robert’s father had died thirty years before and no one knew if Robert remembered him. But the two of them had ridden horses together and one day when Robert’s mother was visiting him at Willie Ross, he signed the word “horse” and it was then she realized that he did remember.
One of the horses in the program had been horribly mistreated before the Willie Ross people rescued and rehabilitated him. His owners had tied his back feet together, and wrapped wire around his tongue and dragged him behind a tractor to break his spirit. The Willie Ross people and their vets restored him to health and trained him to help their autistic patients. It was a touching example of what people and horses can accomplish when they work together.
The website I had put up for Heart of a Horse, was attracting attention and I had begun to get calls to the foundation. One was from a woman who said her name was Mayisha Ahkbar, and that she ran a ranch and training program for youngsters in Compton. “I’m having an event,” she said, “and would like to give you an award for what you are doing. I really love what you do.” Of course I said I would be honored to receive her award. She invited me to come out to see the ranch and meet her kids.
When the day came for my visit, I left my valley with its green open fields, and people riding their horses along the trails, and other sights that make a person feel safe, and drove onto the freeways that took me to South Central Los Angeles and the city of Compton. I had never been to South Central before, and as I exited the freeway onto the local streets, I was immediately struck by gang graffiti that defaced the walls and buildings, the bars on the windows and doors of people’s homes, and the crack houses with gang members hanging out front. This is so sad, I thought. What a struggle this woman must have to keep her children safe in these surroundings and mean streets. While I was thinking this, I became aware that I hadn’t gotten to my destination and was probably lost, and my sadness turned into fear. Don’t panic, I thought, just get back on the freeway and call Mayisha and ask her if we could do this another day. But just as I turned my truck around I saw a little gate with a horse on it, and a little boy riding. Oh my God, I thought, I’m here. This is the place, where this woman has built her ranch. I parked, and started walking towards the Compton Junior Posse entrance.
As I approached the gate a black lady with blonde-tinted corn rows tumbling from under a cowboy hat, big brown eyes and an even bigger smile, came towards me and said “I’m Mayisha, you must be April. It’s so good to see you. Let me give you a tour.” She took me over to where her horses were stabled and showed me her property, which had an arena and turnouts for about a dozen horses. Then she had her students who ranged from little kids to teenagers line up to shake my hand and say how nice it was for me to come down to meet their group. I was impressed with how well mannered and disciplined they were, and told her so. She said, “I won’t let any of them cuss, and I make them all do their homework. We are not only training our horses. We are training our children as well.” I thought to myself: “I almost turned around and went home and missed this. What a loss that would have been.”
Mayisha told me how she had moved to Compton in 1988. She settled in a countrified Compton neighborhood known as Richland Farms and bought a few horses. She was a single mother with three children at the time, and she wanted her children “to experience the wonder of growing up rural.” Soon her children “became pied pipers,” as she put it, bringing others flocking to her home to see the horses. For most of them it was a country refuge from the urban condition that put their lives at risk. The ranch was their safe haven. “About forty of my children, including my own son had got shot,” she told me. She trained her wards in horsemanship and dressage to give them a new direction for their lives, away from the gangs and the streets that were so dangerous.
I met Mayisha’s teenage son Khafra, who told me how much he loved the horses. As he talked, I noticed the number seven tatooed on his neck and asked him what it was. It was a gang tattoo. Sometimes you have to participate in a gang to survive, he told me. “If you don’t they come and kill you.” Then he lifted his pants leg and showed me his leg where half the calf had been blown off. He had been shot while riding his bike. Khafra spent forty-two days in the critical care unit at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital where he had multiple surgeries to his left leg. One of his friends named Tracy Dean had been shot eight times by gang members and ended up in prison. “I think how different things could have been for him if he had joined me with the horses instead of going on with the gang,” he said.
When Khafra came home from the hospital he was unable to walk. “All I wanted to do,” he said, “was sit all day watching the horses run and kick up their heels. When my mom asked me why I just wanted to sit with the horses, I told her I felt like I wanted to get away, and being with the horses is where I can get away. When I am with the horses, I feel invincible.”
The horses Mayisha used for training at the ranch were horses she had rescued. “The horses might come to us really afraid or really thin, but they learn to trust humans again. The horses become therapy for the kids and the kids become therapy for the horses; they fall in love with each other.” I was touched by her words, and what I had witnessed, and so glad I had come.
The awards event was held in May at the Burbank Equestrian Center, right off the Glendale freeway. I asked Kevin and Kandice Watts to join me. Kevin drove us, as he would not have it any other way. In case there is an emergency, Kevin never leaves his cell phone off, and sure enough it began to ring while we were on our way, and ring again. First he was talking someone through a colic, and then he was advising another client about a sore leg, and before you knew it we were lost. “Kevin!” I said. I won’t even be there when they give me the award.” But he was wrapped up in his phone calls and focused more them than on the road, or the fact that we were late and not sure where we were. Kandice and I both began to nag him “Are we going to get there or not?” “Kevin, can you please focus on the fact that we’re lost. I’ll be so embarrassed if we don’t make it.”
When he finally got off the phone, and got us back on track, there were only a few minutes left for us to get there and I could feel my heart pattering. When we finally arrived, Kandice and I jumped from the car, and hurried inside the hall in the nick of time. I was the first to get an award. Flushed with excitement I got up on the stage and he master of ceremonies for the evening announced, “April is the founder of the Heart of a Horse Foundation; her mission is to celebrate horses and the communities that care for them,” and handed me a statuette of a little boy in a big hat hoisting a little girl onto a horse.
I was very touched, and even overwhelmed to be part of the evening and all the effort that went into it. When I sat down Mayisha’s brother told me that another youngster had been killed by gang violence the day before. At the end of the evening, I thanked Mayisha and said to her, “I’m so sorry to hear about this. This must be so hard for you.” She said, “It’s like a sea of war. It never stops.”
Without thinking, I said: “Why don’t you move away?” She replied: “April I can’t do that. If I leave there’s no way for these children to reach me. The hope is gone.” On the way home I thought about Mayisha and her children and the children who had been shot, and thought: “All we can do is give what we can, try to put some kindness into the world. Even, if it’s only a little piece of heaven, it will make a difference. Those unwanted horses that Mayisha took in, and Mayisha’s love and dedication had changed the lives and dreams of these children forever.